Calorie counts on menus: Are we feeding eating disorders?

Our guest blogger, Michele Lim, on why making calorie counts on restaurant menus mandatory is misguided and potentially harmful. The blog includes discussion of eating disorders based on the author’s lived experience and academic experience.

A hand holds a cup of coffee placed on a wooden table. Part of a brunch menu is visible
Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Michele Lim

I was twenty when I first understood what a calorie was. On a seemingly innocent trip to the supermarket, I excitedly picked up a jar of crunchy maple peanut butter, only to be met with an expression of shock on my friend’s face, “Do you know how many calories are in that?” I didn’t, actually. Until that point I knew that calories existed, but they were an abstract entity that I had never connected to my personal consumption of food.

I left the store that day without any peanut butter. Instead, I went home with a newfound conviction that lower calorie foods were somehow ‘better’ and that if I ate them, then I too would be ‘better’—physically, morally and otherwise. Combined with a stressful year at university and my anxious personality, counting calories quickly became a way to create a sense of comfort and control in a seemingly unpredictable period of my life.

And so began a year of crash dieting that for me, quickly escalated into an anorexia nervosa diagnosis, threatened hospitalisation and a loss of the healthy relationship with food and my body that I once held.

A blunt tool

Fast forward to this year. I am now an early career researcher exploring young people’s mental health and the risk factors for eating disorders. So when the Queen’s Speech on 11 May announced new legislation requiring food businesses with over 250 employees to place calorie labels on their menus, this caught my attention. The policy aims to reduce obesity, a renewed priority because of its link with Covid-19.

It’s a simple move but like many things, there is underlying complexity—something that the government doesn’t seem to have thought through. For a start, rather than being a matter of the number of calories in vs number of calories out, there are many factors at play that can lead someone to experience fluctuations with their weight. This means that this blunt tool is unlikely to have the intended effect, something that several reviews of research evidence have pointed to.

What calorie labelling has been linked to is excessive exercise, chronic dieting behaviours and cycling between bouts of dietary restriction and binge eating. In other words, unsustainable and ultimately, harmful, approaches to weight management.

By introducing such a reductionist policy, the government risks conveying a message that obesity is solely due to a lack of personal resolve and self-control, and can be easily remedied by calorie counting. This view is problematic and may misguidedly foster a sense of shame and personal failing in those of a higher weight.

Barrier to recovery

The negative consequences don’t stop there. The move is troubling for individuals with an eating disorder or at risk of one. Much like my own story, those with eating disorders can develop an intense preoccupation with the number of calories they consume each day. This will only be further enabled by calorie labelling. 

For many with eating disorders, the thought of eating an ‘unknown’ calorie food is terrifying and anxiety-provoking—often manifesting in a refusal to consume meals whose exact calories and contents are unknown. In this sense, calorie counting can act as a safety seeking behaviour similar to that in anxiety disorders: where the act of strictly monitoring one’s calories grants an illusory sense of control, but ultimately magnifies and maintains the fear and avoidance of situations where calorie counting is not possible. This can be particularly debilitating, as much of our social lives and sense of community revolve around sharing meals with others.

In recovery, letting go of calorie counting is actively encouraged. Going to restaurants is an important part of this, as people must release their intense need to know how many calories are in a dish and must face the fear of eating an unknown calorie meal head-on. With calorie counts on menus, not only will this not be possible, but many individuals with eating disorders will likely feel compelled to pick the ‘safest’, lowest calorie option—irrespective of their own true taste or dietary preferences.

Misguided policy

Going against the ‘rules’ of their disorder by picking a higher calorie option can induce tremendous amounts of guilt and shame that may stop many from challenging themselves and embarking on true recovery. For those in remission, seeing calorie labels next to their favourite meal may trigger the return of old habits—habits that they have worked long and hard to unlearn.

It is important to say that not every eating disorder is developed from a fixation with calories, and not every eating disorder stems from control. However, in my own experience and that of many others, calorie labelling is a critical barrier to sustained recovery.

With its new policy, the government has failed to consider the negative repercussions on individuals vulnerable to developing disordered eating, as well as those struggling with existing or past eating disorders. What’s more, the policy is unlikely to have the intended effect on the group of people it is aimed at. Instead it reinforces negative, shaming messages that do little to address the complex nature of weight.

I therefore urge stakeholders to reconsider implementing this policy. The government needs to adopt a public health strategy that ensures physical and mental health for all. This will never be as simple as reprinting the nation’s menus.

Michele Lim is a member of Young People’s Advisory Group for the Agency and Mental Health project. She is an early career researcher focusing on mental health in young people and key risk factors for eating disorders.

This article is responding to government legislation. It does not intend to convey judgement on people of any size. The author acknowledges that everyone’s experiences are unique. Eating disorders can exist in bodies of all shapes, sizes and weights. Not all individuals develop nor maintain an eating disorder due to calorie counting and labelling. Not all eating disorders stem from a need for predictability or control. The author is conveying her own lived experience.

Please see our Sources of Support page for links to mental health support.